Not surprisingly, the subject of COVID-19 has attracted considerable media coverage for most of this year. As someone who closely studies the print media, and who acts as co-host of a talk show on RTHK each week, I naturally get to hear and read a lot about the pandemic.
What is surprising is how often I am surprised by new nuggets of information. For example, in mid-August then Legco Member Dr Kwok Ka-ki told the radio audience that some 300,000 persons were exempt from health checks at the border and allowed to freely enter Hong Kong. He blamed this policy for a previous surge in virus cases here, and contrasted Hong Kong’s practices with those adopted by the Mainland and our neighbouring SAR, Macau, both of which were being much more successful than us in controlling spread of the disease.
I put Kwok’s statistic to other guests on the show in subsequent weeks and it was never challenged. Moreover, nobody from the government, which monitors the media, felt obliged to come on air and offer different numbers. Some exemptions involving pilots and ships’ crews have since been withdrawn, but at the border many tens of thousands of arrivals still enter untested.
In subsequent weeks, other worrying information came to light. For example, many of those returning to Hong Kong from overseas who were subject to quarantine were allowed to do so at home. Only officials living in large flats with multiple bathrooms could believe that this was going to be effective. In normal circumstances with average households, it would be impossible to avoid close contact with other family members – all of whom were free to wonder the streets and mingle with the community.
The mainland had not allowed this loophole from the outset, and eventually our government too required stay in a hotel for the quarantine period. But even here, scrutiny was lax and there were plenty of stories on social media of people entertaining guests in their rooms or slipping off the health bracelets and leaving the hotel altogether.
In the past two weeks, even more disturbing information has come to light. In late November, Legco member Michael Tien Pak-sun said he had studied the whole process of how the government handled returning Hong Kong citizens from the aircraft on which they arrived, through transport to the testing venue, socialization while waiting for test results, and transportation to the hotels. In his view the system was riddled with opportunities for the disease to spread among the arrivals. Even if passengers had been virus-free on the plane, they could well be infected by the time they reached the hotel.
Just last week, there was an even more alarming revelation. A non COVID in-patient in a government hospital rang in to the show to report that though all patients were tested on admission, they were then allowed to leave and re-enter the hospital without being tested again. Some went to nearby shops to buy goods, others could even go home for one or two nights and then come back. The caller was concerned her fellow patients could become infected while on their outside sojourn and bring the virus back to the hospital wards.
This practice at first hearing seemed rather unlikely but it was immediately confirmed by one of the expert guests on the show, Dr Arisina Ma Chung-Yee of the Hong Kong Public Doctors Association. She said it had been standard Hospital Authority practice. Now it is perfectly understandable that in normal circumstances long stay hospital in-patients could be allowed for morale reasons to spend some time out of the institution. But a pandemic is surely not a normal situation. Should the practice not have ceased?
Taking all these episodes together, the cumulative impression is of a huge gap between strategic decision-making at the top and conditions on the ground. Moreover there is no evidence of a proper monitoring system to examine processes and procedures and identify problems, rather a series of ad hoc decisions in response to individual events.
In the early stages of response to a sudden crisis like the pandemic, it is reasonable and acceptable for there to be some mis-steps and for officials to learn from experience and patch things up. But that is not the situation here: for one thing, we are now in the tenth month of dealing with the virus and the various kinks should have been identified and dealt with a long time ago. It is absurd that an individual Legco member can come along after such a long time and find elementary flaws in the system. And we have close neighbours – the mainland, Macau and Taiwan – all of whom have done much better than us. These are not distant places with different cultures, these are our brothers and sisters, fellow members of the greater China community.
Even if top levels of the current administration have convinced themselves that they are doing a great job, outsiders are not being fooled. A major exhibition previously held in Hong Kong has just announced it is moving to Malaysia. More significantly, the World Economic Forum which comprises movers and shakers from the political and business community normally holds its annual meeting in Davos Switzerland decided to move to Asia this time because of the virus situation in Europe. It chose Singapore for the 2021 meeting. However big a fan of Asia’s World City you may be – and I count myself among the biggest – it is hard to quarrel with the WEF’s decision.
In the on-air discussion with Michael Tien, I said it sounded as if the Keystone Cops were in charge of the procedures. On reflection I think I may have been unfair to members of the silent constabulary.